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Students Should Not Fund the Technology Gap
February 11, 2021

By Jeanne Frawley

As drops in student enrollment and retention due to the pandemic continue to cause financial challenges for higher ed, it’s time to address some root causes of these beyond the pandemic. As institutions seek to diversify the student body – ethnically, geographically, socioeconomically – we must find the gaps and align resources to provide solutions.

Often, the first response to an enrollment or retention issue is to look at tuition costs. Institutions increase discount rates or reset tuition list prices but end up finding themselves in a race to the bottom as this response fails to address the educational value proposition. College tuition is expensive, and income inequality is at the highest rate we’ve seen since the 1920’s. Yet we see high-need students with full-tuition scholarships leaving our universities before graduation. Clearly, it’s not just about the money.
It’s about value, resources, and bandwidth.

Value is subjective. It is defined by an individual’s assessment of the benefits they receive minus the cost to receive it. Anticipated value is what fills our seats in the enrollment process. Students and families ask, “Based on what I believe I’ll experience and gain from attending this institution, is it worth the investment?” Experienced perceived value is what keeps students enrolled. “Am I experiencing and gaining, at a minimum, the benefits I understood to be offered? If not, is it time for a new plan?”

In her book, Lower Ed, author Tressie McMillan Cottom notes, “Every point at which someone exchanges money for goods and services is a moment for them to reconsider their commitment to that purchase.” Imagine how that translates in real life for students. Every time a student is kicked off the residential or academic network while they attempt to upload a paper or attend an online class, they will reconsider their commitment to their educational purchase. Just ask Sasha*.

Sasha shared her story over coffee with me on a beautiful spring day on her campus. She attends a public university in the Northeast, and her family is from the Greater New York City Region. Sasha works on campus and at a local restaurant, is a leader in the dance troupe, regularly participates in the Student Black Leadership Union, and has a self-reported GPA over 3.5, regularly making the Dean’s List.

Sasha doesn’t come from money. Her parents both work full-time jobs, and the kids pitch in at home. She says she’s fortunate to have the support of her family to pursue a college education because “not all of my friends’ parents let them go.”

On this particular afternoon, Sasha agreed to chat about the student technology experience. “How’s the network?” I asked, a regular inquiry for any of the college students in my life. “It’s ok,” she replied. “I got cut off on my [cellular] data plan again.”

Sasha went on to tell me that high evening traffic on the network slows it down, so most students just shut off the Wi-Fi and use their smartphones as hotspots so they can do their homework uninterrupted. This causes an overage on the family cellular data plan, and Sasha’s mother can’t afford the monthly bill. This happens “sometimes by the 15th, sometimes later” in the month, and Sasha must then head to an open academic building where the network traffic is lighter. She feels unsafe walking around campus alone late at night, so she thinks moving home might make sense.

Sasha is questioning the value of her college education over what is likely a financial investment of no more than $600 per semester. On every late-night walk to the library, she’s having this debate with herself. She didn’t want to ask for a potential monthly allowance from financial aid. She was considering going home, and she’s not alone.

Michelle Macario was highlighted in a New York Times article in October. According to the article, Michelle was “struggling to follow online classes through the tiny screen of her smartphone. She had no laptop and no Wi-Fi at home, and the library where she normally studied at her community college in Los Angeles was closed. So two weeks into the coronavirus shutdown in the spring, she dropped all of her courses to avoid failing.”

Michelle explained, “Between the internet, Covid and couch surfing, I haven’t been able to do a good semester.”

We’re offering food banks for under-nourished students, professional closets for those without suits to interview, mentors for those without a support system, and open-source textbooks intended to minimize book costs, yet many places have no technology net for the student trying to upload their paper and access their online coursework when the campus network gets jammed, something that’s happening more often with many residence halls doubling as virtual classrooms during all hours. A weak network puts students at risk of falling behind or worse.

So, what do we do about it?

First, we must recognize that students need ALL basic resources to compete, and Wi-Fi is a basic resource. The students need it to work. We need to get the simple things right.

Higher ed IT teams are not well-resourced to handle the continuous delivery of reliable, high-performing Wi-Fi internally because broadband demand doubles every 18 months, security issues related to vulnerable IoT devices is a growing problem, and networking equipment needs to be upgraded on regular cycles. Add this workload to the other 99 jobs that IT needs to perform, and there’s no room for IT to contribute to innovation in online learning, increasing enrollment, or student outcomes.

I’ve spent over 20 years working with students like Sasha, having worked in enrollment, in housing, and as a faculty member at a Midwestern R1 institution, and the socioeconomically vulnerable students are always top of mind for me. They are funding the technology gap, and we need to respond.

It’s time to partner to ensure a modern network that meets students’ basic technology needs. In our analysis of Apogee ResNet customers – who all put a strong emphasis on on-campus residential living – we found that 62% of Apogee customers beat the national 4-year graduation rate. Of those who have been using our services for five years or more, 80% met or beat the national retention average, with 48% of them beating it by 10 or more points. When looking at graduation rates, 62% of Apogee ResNet customers beat the national 4-year graduation rate with 81% of those beating it by 10 points or more. 77% beat the national six-year graduation rate, 70% of those by 10 or more points.

Apogee ResNet customers invested in a basic need – a continuously modern network – that may have contributed to student outcomes. It may not always have been the least expensive way to provide access to modern Wi-Fi, but it was always the most reliable, equitable, and scalable option.

Apogee wants you to be able to confidently tell students that the promise of an accessible education in an at-home environment is what you’re offering. They must experience this authentically, not as a hidden cost that they discover after arriving on campus. Let’s partner to make network resources available for students and think about strategic funding models such as asking donors to fund Wi-Fi networks instead of buildings. Let’s provide an environment that promotes student success with technology that frees them to achieve higher academic performance.

Let’s mind the gap.

To learn more about aligning technology plans to strategic outcomes, please visit our interactive report The State of Higher Ed Strategic Technology Planning. To schedule time with an Apogee representative to understand how to address the Wi-Fi gap at your institution, please contact us today.

*Sasha’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Author Bio

Jeanne Frawley joined Apogee in 2017 as Director of Business Development for Apogee. With over 20 years of higher education experience, Jeanne has worked in Enrollment Management, Housing, and on the business faculty of top-ranked universities. As founding director of The Sales Education Foundation, Jeanne partnered globally with universities to establish and expand their professional selling programs and to build a bridge between industry and academia.

Jeanne holds a both her BA and MSE from University of Dayton. She enjoys travel, mostly for the food, and works as an advisor for Retreat to Broadway, fortunately never taking the stage.

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